I Accidentally Started the London Independence Movement with an Online Brexit Petition (Then Things Went Crazy)

By James O Malley on at

The last week has been rather strange. Not just in world affairs or domestic politics, but for me personally. I have accidentally founded an independence movement, and attracted the attention of the world’s media.

Having stayed up all night watching the EU referendum results, when David Dimbleby made the official announcement, that yes, Britain is heading to the Brexit, I felt depressed. I’m a huge fan of the EU - I think its values represent the better angels of our nature, and that a world without borders is infinitely preferable to one where we create new barriers. So I did the only thing someone with a Twitter account and a chip on their shoulder could do: I created an online petition. I argued that now that Britain is leaving Europe, that London should leave the rest of Britain, and join the EU instead.

The rationale was simple: London is a world city, and one that is outward looking and welcomes new people and ideas. Even if the rest of Britain doesn’t always think that way. So with my tongue firmly planted into the side of my cheek, I called for Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare our city independent, and to rejoin our friends on the continent.

I expected perhaps a hundred signatures – mostly people I follow on Twitter. But after a few minutes I checked and discovered that a thousand people had signed. I checked again - 1000 more. It was starting to snowball. At the time of writing, over 178,000 people have signed on to what I christened the #londependence movement.

And then things went a bit crazy.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a barrage of worldwide media attention, allow me to take you behind the scenes.

Friday – You Say You Want a Revolution?

I created the petition at something like 5:30am. After, I realised I should probably get some sleep, so I got into bed, lied down, shut my eyes and… well, I couldn’t sleep could I? The most astonishing story in British politics of my lifetime was unfolding, and I’m the sort of nerd who cares about these things. So after flipping through Twitter on my phone, I gave up on the idea of getting some sleep and instead got back up, switched on the TV and settled in to watch the world around me collapse.

It was at this point that I remembered the petition I created, and discovered that I was accidentally the leader of a cause that I wasn’t entirely certain that I actually agreed with.

Much of the rest of the day was spent refreshing the petition page watching the numbers shoot up and up. In the afternoon, the Evening Standard published a story about it. I then got an email from local TV station London Live, and ended up live on their 6pm news bulletin, explaining why I’d created this thing.

Having not done too badly at explaining myself, I went home and the numbers kept climbing. It was at this point that I started to get my first volley of unpleasant tweets from Leave campaigners, racists and (amazingly) a handful of actual Nazis. Some were simply calling me a twat - others were accusing me of treason and making death threats. All had “egg” avatars.

At about 8pm, just as I was getting ready to finally get to sleep, 36 hours after I woke up on Thursday morning, another email hit my inbox. It was BBC World, the BBC’s international news channel. They wanted me to go and speak live in the studio. To a potential audience of about 100m people. Yikes.

But as I can’t say no, I ended up heading to BBC Broadcasting House (mercifully in a cab paid for by the Beeb) to appear live on international TV, having at this point been awake for around 40 hours. Though to be honest at this point I wasn’t quite sure whether I was actually on TV or whether I was simply hallucinating.

Saturday – Introducing the In-Laws to Japanese TV

After some much needed sleep, I saw the numbers on the petition were still going up. And international broadcasters were starting to get interested. Having flown in to cover Britain very sensibly deciding to remain in the EU, a number of teams were staying for the aftermath… and it appears that my story made for a nice lighter moment in an otherwise black hole of darkness.

So on Saturday, a parade of TV crews came to my flat to film me. French TV were first. Slovakian TV was second, then another French broadcaster and finally a Japanese crew. What made this especially weird was that as this last interview with NHK Japan was taking place my partner got home with my elderly mother-in-law - a hard of hearing Dutch-Canadian woman who has never used a mobile phone. She had come to stay with us for a fortnight… and so she walked into my flat to discover three Japanese guys sat around me with a camera, whispering in Japanese. She had no idea what was going on. And to be fair, neither did I.

What was interesting from all of this telly was seeing from behind the scenes how TV magic is made. They don’t turn up and interview you. There’s a lot more faffing about. They needed shots of me pretending to work on my computer, and walking around my flat looking at things, so that they had some pictures the presenter could speak over.

If you’ve ever seen a news report feature the journalist knocking on a guest’s door and being invited in at the start of a report, you’ll be unsurprised to learn these are entirely fake. But now speaking as a seasoned actor, I can tell you that the trick to making the door opening look natural is to not open the door immediately after the knock, even though you’re standing right behind it. The trick is to leave it for a couple of seconds, and then as you pretend to act surprised, be sure to step out of the door so that the camera can get you into the shot.

It was as I was doing these four interviews that I realised how professional politicians and celebrities do it. As you get the same questions all of the time, you develop your patter to tell anecdotes with certain soundbites and phrases. Everyone does this. If you watch multiple interviews with a film star plugging the same film, they’ll tell the same stories every time. If you watch any interviews with the Leave campaign from before the referendum, they’d relentlessly repeat the phrase “Take Back Control”, to make their point.

I ended up doing the same. When asked if I really thought London should be independent, I’d always joke that I can’t envisage passport control on the M25. And if the broadcaster were an international broadcaster, I’d then add “ - that’s the road that rings London” to make sure everyone understood.

As Saturday wore on, now that the petition had received well over 100,000 signatures and the world’s media were at my door I started to worry - and made my first big misstep. I was receiving hundreds of emails from people who were taking my campaign far more seriously than I was. “Let’s start a political party!” they’d say, and other people were offering their skills and time to try and make the dream of an independent London a reality. So I started to think about what I could do next to take this energy to the next level. I wasn’t sure what the plan was, but I figured that to do it we’d need money, so I set up a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, suggesting we could raise cash to spend on a rally, or some campaigning apparatus, or something similar.

Sunday – My Own Financial Crisis

Sunday played out much like Saturday, with more TV crews showing up. This time there was yet another French TV station, Al Jazeera, and two Italian crews who both brought four people along rather than the seemingly standard two. After a fairly standard encounter with the first crew, the second Italian crew were a bit of a surprise. After dashing out to a coffee shop to meet a German print journalist, I got home to find the crew waiting for me outside and discovered that they wanted to do the interview live, only minutes later. So we rushed inside my flat, hastily set up their camera and prepared to go live from my living room. (Interesting tech note: to go live they didn’t use a satellite truck like you might expect – they used a small device that contained 4 Vodafone 4G SIM cards, and were able to transmit pictures that way instead.)

At home with the Italian film crew.

Sadly, outside of my increasingly international broadcasting career, things weren’t going so well. After posting the GoFundMe link on Facebook, pretty much every single one of my friends told me that it was an utterly terrible idea. And if we’ve learned anything from Brexit fallout this week it is that when almost every expert says that something is a terrible idea, it is definitely a terrible idea.

This reaction surprised me - by this point the GoFundMe had raised £3000 and donations were pouring in from enthusiastic Londependence supporters, keen to support the cause.

But my friends were right - it was a bad idea. They could see through my hubris and were better placed to tell me that I was in over my head. I was buoyed by the enthusiasm from the petition, which was still racking up signatures. They told me that I hadn’t got a proper plan about what I’d actually do with the cash, and that once you start handling other people’s money, it takes things up to a scary new gear. So after some brief reflection and a minor meltdown I cancelled the GoFundMe, which had raised an astonishing £3000 overnight, and refunded all of the cash. No harm done - though annoyingly, the Evening Standard picked up on the cancellation and wrote a sniffy article about it. It’s hard to think clearly when you have the world’s media banging on your door.

I ended the day by appearing live via Skype on the Canadian CBC News and in the process discovered that trying to explain Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism to a foreign audience is quite tricky.

Monday – Some Football Thing Happened

Monday was the first day since the referendum that vaguely resembled a normal day. I got up at my normal time, I was able to get some actual work done. And the rate at which people were signing the petition was slowing down.

The only residual attention came from BBC Radio 5Live, who called to book me for a debate on Brexit the following morning. But this was quickly cancelled as the England football team made a Brexit of their own and suddenly the network had something more important to talk about than who would be the next Prime Minister: Who would be the next England Manager.

Tuesday – Sadiq Speaks!

It was on Tuesday morning that I thought things were back to normal. The petition had slowed down to a near halt, not even adding a thousand names in 24 hours. And then the most ridiculous thing happened: The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan actually responded to my petition. In a speech at the Times CEO Summit, he apparently joked that he liked the title “El Presidente”, but that he doesn’t want London to be Londependent. He instead cited the petition as evidence that Londoners want more powers devolved to City Hall. In a happy coincidence, I’d written basically the same arguments in a piece for the Telegraph that same morning.

What was strange though was that this was all happening while I was trying to live my normal life. I was spending the morning at a conference for another client. So while social media was exploding with news that the Mayor was sort of backing this ludicrous thing I’d started, I had to force myself to switch off and instead concentrate on people in suits talking about enterprise software. This was exactly as difficult as you would imagine.

The day got even weirder when at lunchtime I got a call inviting me to appear that night on ITV London News, which was doing a live broadcast from Trafalgar Square at a pro-Europe rally. It was pouring with rain, but I still went down to the square, sans umbrella or a coat and prepared to be on TV.

I wasn’t feeling very nervous as by this point I’d given approximately a million interviews, which more or less all had same fairly soft questions. But with about ten seconds to go before we went live on air the presenter said to me “So the first question is going to be asking why you want to overturn a democratic decision”. Wait, what? Agh! I just started a jokey petition and now I was plotting against democracy?! Had my revolution gone too far?

Speaking with Ria Chatterjee from ITV News

Amazingly, it was at this point I realised that all of these interviews had trained me for this exact sort of hostile questioning, and I had learned another trick the real politicians use: the pivot. This is where politicians take a question and somehow end up answering a very different question - the question they would have preferred to have been asked.

The question was fired at me and I started by fumbling my way through a half answer: “Well, democracy isn’t a winner takes all system, it’s about balancing the interests of different groups - and given the referendum results were so close, the 48% of voters who went for Remain should be recognised”, I said, feeling quite pleased with myself at my quick thinking.

And then came the masterful pivot to dodge the question. “...But I think what this rally and my petition really represent..”, I said, having set up my own question to answer, “is that we believe London is a welcoming and open world city - and we don’t want to close ourselves off to the world.”.

Boom. I am an expert politician. Now which way to Downing Street?

Wednesday – All Weird Things Must Come to an End

By Wednesday, attention was starting to wane. The world’s media has moved on to cover other stories. But I did still do one final Skype interview with a German news channel, which wanted to produce a feature on Brexit. It went rather well - by this point I’m quite a polished interviewee. The only problem? TV producers need clips that are only seconds long and by now I’ve got many stories I could waffle on for ages.

Thursday – Boris is Out (and I Am Too)

At the time of writing, the petition has 178,061 signatures. And yet… my phone has stopped ringing. My email inbox can breath once again. It appears that one week on from inadvertently starting a political movement… I am a nobody again. My 15 minutes of fame is over.

A lot of people have asked me since what this says about the power of online petitions. In a sense, the success of the petition was annoying - because I’ve previously been quite sceptical about whether clicktivism can achieve anything. So the fact that it is now part of the Mayor’s rhetorical arsenal as he campaigns for more powers does perhaps show that with enough attention, they can have an impact. For me personally, I am worried that it has put me under a lot of pressure. Though I’ve enjoyed the media attention this week, there is one niggling problem: I’ve now started this thing that is now beyond my control, and there are now thousands of people looking to me to tell them what to do next. It feels inevitable that I’m going to end up disappointing them.

Over the last week I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become the accidental leader of an independence movement, I’ve accidentally trained myself to become a savvy political operative, and I’ve accidentally won the genuine support of a surprisingly large number of people for a cause that might actually be quite unwise. All because of a joke that got a bit out of hand. And thinking about it, perhaps this is a good explanation for the Leave campaign too?

Lead Image Credit: Westminister (modified) from Shutterstock